Archives For Secondary Causes

In Sunday’s sermon on Job, I made the claim that “God does not have a plan for your life.” I said it clearly and without qualification so my listeners would hear me.

Apparently I succeeded, as all week I’ve been bombarded by pushback. Allow me to flesh it out a bit so you don’t think I’m a heretic or that your life is nothing but a chaotic nightmare.

The best exposition of this question comes from St Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica; in fact, all other thinking about God’s plan- what theologians call providence- owes to Aquinas.

Aquinas tackles the issue in Question #22, Answer #3:

God provides for everything but does God provide directly for everything?

Were God to do so, it might seem to remove all causality from created things- none of us would be responsible for our choices and actions- and would also seem, for example, to make God directly responsible for evil.

To answer this, Aquinas distinguishes between providence and governance. Providence involves the “idea or planned purpose” for things, governance involves the execution of this planned purpose.

Aquinas argues that God’s providence is universally direct but that his governance is executed indirectly through intermediaries (that is, the beings that God has created).

Think of Genesis 1. God creates us so that we might enjoy God as Father, Son and Spirit enjoy one another. God is the primary, first cause of creation and intends us towards an ultimate goal, the Kingdom. As part of that goal or ‘plan,’ God gives dominion of creation to Adam and Eve.

Aquinas’ idea is that God acts as universal cause, laying out the plan for all creation to one day share fellowship with God in God’s Kingdom. As part of that creation, God creates true secondary agents who execute- or sometimes not- that plan.

For Aquinas this is what ‘predestination’ means. God creates us with an End (destination) in mind before (pre) he creates us. 

This could not be more different from the notion that God has determined all our choices and moments of our lives prior to our birth.

Aquinas uses the image of an arrow being shot at a target. The arrow clearly has been shot by someone (God) and is obviously intended towards a target (the Kingdom). However the archer’s intent and the natural trajectory of the arrow are not the only things acting upon the arrow. A sudden gust of wind, someone knocking into the arrow, can frustrate the arrow’s journey. 

God, in other words, is the first cause of each of us and all that is, but the freedom God sows into creation and the agency God gives us over creation also means that there are ‘secondary causes’ impacting our lives for good and bad all the time.

Think of Jesus in the Garden praying to discern the Father’s will. God clearly intends an outcome to Jesus’ life. At the same time, for Jesus’ act of obedience to be freely offered the outcome is not a foregone conclusion. It’s not predetermined. Jesus could have chosen a fate other than the cross and so do we, all the time. In a very real sense our entire lives are lived in that Gesthemane moment.

We like to speak of ‘God having a plan’ for each us and typically what we mean is that every moment, every triumph and tragedy, coheres to an elaborate, divinely ordered script for our lives. It either makes our lives seem more interesting or it soothes us to know that our lives aren’t as contingent as they feel.

But even though the ‘God has a plan’ thinking has seeped into Christian speech, it is not Christian.

God doesn’t have a plan for each of our lives because God has a Plan- with a capital P- for our lives.

God’s Plan is for us to love God as Jesus loved the Father.

To so love requires our lives, our choices, our actions to be free and contingent.

Maybe that sounds scarier (it was for Jesus) but it’s also potentially more beautiful (it was for Jesus).